This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russia and Belarus have signed documents allowing for the placement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus, a move that has increased already strained tensions between the Kremlin and the West.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after the signing in Minsk on May 25 that Moscow will maintain control of the weapons while on Belarusian soil.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in March raised the prospect of Moscow deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus — which borders Ukraine and three NATO nations — by July, a move the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has agreed to.
The announcement sparked immediate criticism from governments around the world, while NATO called it “dangerous and irresponsible.”
The United States condemned the move, with State Department spokesman Matthew Miller calling it “the latest example of irresponsible behavior that we have seen from Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.”
He added, though, that “we have seen no reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture or any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”
Shoigu said on May 25 that the decision was made “in the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus.
Lukashenka, meanwhile, on May 25 told journalists in Moscow — where he is attending a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union — that “the transfer of the nuclear weapons [from Russia to Belarus] had started.”
However, when a journalist asked if any of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons were already in Belarus, Lukashenka said: “Probably. I will see when I go back.”
Since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago, Russia has used Belarus — with Lukashenka’s approval — as a staging area for the unprovoked attack. Belarus has welcomed closer relations with Moscow since a wave of crushing sanctions were imposed on it by the West after a sometimes deadly government crackdown on massive protests following a disputed 2020 presidential election handed Lukashenka a sixth term.
Tactical nuclear weapons are lower-yield weapons that are designed to be used on the battlefield instead of wiping out entire cities. Russia has not disclosed how many tactical nuclear weapons it has.
No details of the agreement with Belarus on the number of weapons to be deployed were revealed. Shoigu said the agreements cover procedures for the establishment of a “special” storage facility for the weapons.
Last month, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Boris Gryzlov, said the plan to place Russian tactical nuclear weapons close to the NATO member states was made “to increase the possibilities of guaranteeing security” of the Russia-Belarus Union State, a project of deeper integration between the two nations. Moscow and Minsk signed a Union State treaty in 1999 and have been negotiating it sporadically since then.
Russian authorities have repeatedly raised the specter of the potential use of nuclear weapons since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with the frequency of the warnings increasing as Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine continues.